Tag Archives: Leigh Brackett

Slavers, Leigh Brackett and a friend of mine: stuff read

THIS VAST SOUTHERN EMPIRE: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy by Matthew Karp looks at how American slave states saw England’s 1830s decision to abolish slavery as the beginning of a 19th century Cold War: Britain’s influence could pressure other states into emancipating, eventually leaving the U.S. isolated (though many Southerners were convinced ending slavery was so obviously absurd it would inevitably fail). As the 3/5 clause in the Constitution gave the South disproportionate clout in the federal government, the result was an aggressive foreign policy built around sustaining and allying with slave states such as Brazil, Texas and Cuba (thoughts of England liberating Cuba and creating a nation of black revolutionaries were a major Southern bogeyman) and building up a strong enough military to counteract any overt free-the-slaves moves from Britain. Extremely interesting.

I wrapped up my Leigh Brackett rereading with THE HALFLING AND OTHER STORIES, which strikes me as a very “typical” collection of her works: the titular hardboiled SF yarn about a carnie owner and his mysterious new entertaining, mysterious quests on unknown worlds (Citadel on Lost Ages and Lake of the Gone Forever), and the Eric John Stark story Enchantress of Venus. Less typically there’s the Zenna Hnederson-esque The Truants, the suprisingly upbeat The Shadows and the biting critique of racism, All the Colors of the Rainbow. Overall, excellent (Gone Forever works much better for me now that I’m old enough to have known loss).

And my friend Allegra Gullino has a short story, Jezebel’s Escape in the latest issue of Eldritch Science.

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A PI and an Arab boy in this week’s reading

Having read so much Leigh Brackett SF recently, I decided to check out one of her straight mysteries. The only one easily available was NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE, an extremely hardboiled 1944 thriller that has a lot of Raymond Chandler in its DNA but also reminds me of Cornell Woolrich’s Phantom Lady (which came out a couple of years earlier). The violence also reminds me of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (who debuted a couple of years later) — when protagonist Eddie Clive hits or gets hit, it’s hard, visceral and leaves a mark. And the treatment of women feels more like Spillane than Chandler (whose heroes tended to the chivalric under their hardboiled shells).

Eddie has just returned to LA from an out-of-town case that’s made him quite a high-profile gumshoe. He reunites with Laurel, his almost-girlfriend: Eddie’s crazy about her, but he knows she couldn’t stay faithful to him or any man. Much to Eddie’s annoyance, Laurel also convinces him to help out Mick, Eddie’s closest friend until Mick put the moves on one of Eddie’s previous girlfriends (like Laurel, Mick can’t keep it in his pants); someone’s been sending poison-pen anonymous letters about Mick’s embarrassing past to his wife and Mick wants to know who (I suppose that kind of harassment is pre-internet trolling). They all crash at Laurel’s apartment, but someone clubs Eddie dead and uses Mick’s stick to beat Laurel to death.

Eddie, of course, sets off to find out whodunnit before the LAPD pins it on him. Is it Mick after all? One of his dysfunctional relatives? One of Laurel’s other suitors? How is it that every time Eddie finds a person who can help, they end up dead? It ends up being a solid little thriller, though the sexism gets a little thick (as it does for some of Brackett’s SF).

Riad Sattouf was just a kid when his parents — Syrian dad, French mother — upped and moved from France to Libya. THE ARAB OF THE FUTURE: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984 chronicles Sattouf’s culture shock and experiences dealing with family he’s never met, the policies and economic dysfunction of Khaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria and his parents squabbles and political views. I think I prefer Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis but if any more volumes of Sattouf’s work are available at the Durham Library — and it’s actually open — I’ll certainly pick ’em up.

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The Victorian Past, the Unimaginable Future and parallel worlds

After reading Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead, I thought THE INVENTION OF MURDER: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders would provide more insight in the same vein. Unfortunately it’s more like a listicle of once-sensational crimes — a lot of them don’t stand out by today’s standards — and the press coverage and stage dramatizations that fed on the public’s interest in them. Black Swine had more insight into the Victorian psyche and Jess Nevins’ Fantastic Victoriana is more interesting on the development of crime and detective fiction. So I put this one down unfinished.

In his historical notes on Flashman, George Macdonald Fraser referenced A JOURNAL OF THE FIRST AFGHAN WAR by Lady Florentia Sale as a good source on the disastrous events in his novel; discovering TYG had a copy I finally got around to reading it. Writing in 1842, Sale chronicles a long string of missteps and bad judgments made by British military and diplomatic leaders in Afghanistan, ranging from soldiers retreating when they should have won to wildly misreading who among the Afghans was trustworthy. This ultimately led to a disorganized withdrawal bogged down by servants, camp-followers and families, that ended for most of the retreating Brits as corpses strewn across the landscape, though Sale herself made it to safety. A grim study of military ineptitude and some tart-tongued writing.

THE TIME AXIS is a very Olaf Stapledon-ish epic by Henry Kuttner in which a boozing journalist doing an article on a high-powered scientist discovers the real purpose of his assignment is to join a team traveling to the end of time and finding a cure for the mysterious indestructible substance slowly taking over the world’s matter. The story that follows (Arnold Schoenberg’s cover captures a lot of it) seems like Kuttner just kept pumping out ideas and throwing them in — mandroids, transporters, time travel, psi-possession — but it worked for me.

Leigh Brackett’s THE BIG JUMP has a protagonist investigating the aftermath of Earth’s first interstellar expedition: what happened to his friend who apparently didn’t come home with the ship? Why is the Solar System’s most powerful corporation covering up what happened on the journey? Learning that something bad happened to the crew, the protagonist deals himself in on the follow-up flight, only to discover their destination holds a threat he hadn’t anticipated. I love the monstrous alien Transuranea but the sexism of this hardboiled SF yarn gets heavy.

CAVE CARSON HAS A CYBERNETIC EYE: Every Me, Every You by Gerard Way, Jon Rivera and Michael Avon Oeming starts poorly: a flashback to a Superman crossover, then some really confusing jumping to parallel worlds for more battles with the Whisperer. Things pick up after they finally land on another world where they join forces with an older counterpart of Cave and Cave Carson Jr. against the bad guys. The end result is not as fun as the first volume, but it’s good enough I’ll try the third and final volume eventually.

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Heroes with Secret Pasts and a dying Earth: books read

Andre Norton’s THE JARGOON PARD is the first sequel to Year of the Unicorn, set in Arvon, the homeland of the Wereriders. Arvon comes off much like Estcore, a land that sealed itself off after arrogant mages opened dimensional gates to Very Bad Things, and protagonist Kethan has a backstory similar to Kerovan of Crystal Gryphon, a son born touched by magic so that his mother can use him as a tool to attain power.

Surprisingly, though, the book charts it’s own course, starting with Mom bearing a girl, whom she promptly swaps for the son of another woman (Gillan of Unicorn). Like so many Witch World protagonists, Kethan grows up feeling something of an outsider, then one of his mother’s rivals gives him a magic belt that triggers his innate shapeshifting powers. Now he’s a pard (big puma — the jargoon is the carved gem on the belt’s clasp) but he can’t turn back unless he submits to the will of his mother’s resident sorceress — and Kethan would sooner die. The results are solidly entertaining; this is also the first book to spotlight the worship of the harvest/mother goddess Gunnora, which plays a big role in many later books.

THE DARK WORLD has Henry Kuttner’s name on it but some researchers suggest C.L. Moore is co- or sole author. While it has a lot in common with Mask of Circe, it also resembles Dwellers in the Mirage (amnesiac hero with buried memories, good vs. bad girl, other-dimensional soul-sucking horror) and would later inspire both Roger Zelazny’s Amber and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Falcons of Narabedla.

Oh, wait, you might want to know about the story too! The protagonist is a WW II veteran suffering strange blackouts and odd memories. When he’s drawn into the eponymous alternate timeline, he discovers that’s because he’s actually Ganelon, a member of the ruling coven of mages, bound to the other-dimensional horror Llyr; the resistance against the coven managed to swap him and the real veteran (parallel world counterparts), leaving Ganelon with the veteran’s memories. Now that Ganelon’s back, he’s ready to regain power, which requires working with the resistance against the coven and somehow driving Llyr back from this plane of existence. The result is a lively fantasy, though the random mix of myth names (Llyr, Medea, Freydis) is jarring (as Lin Carter says, names matter).

In THE STARMAN OF LLYRDIS by Leigh Brackett, an Earthman who’s spent his entire life as even more of an outcast than Kethan learns the reason: he’s only half-human, the other half being Varddan, the one race that can survive interstellar travel due to a gen-engineering breakthrough a millennium ago. The protagonist proves his Varddan genes hold true and wins the right to live and work in space — but then allies himself with revolutionaries who want to share the genetic breakthrough with all the races of the galaxy. A perfect example of Brackett’s fondness for characters who achieve their dreams only to find them hollow (as her husband put it).

Jack Vance’s THE DYING EARTH is probably best known as the basis for spellcasting in D&D (Gary Gygax copied Vance’s idea that mages can only hold a limited number of spells in their mind) but deserves to be known in its own right. On a distant future Earth, various wizards and occasional mortals feud, seek love or quest for knowledge amidst ruined cities, ancient secrets and unpleasant cults.

This blew me away when I read it as a teen, but less so now. The treatment of the female characters is sexist and Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique (which I suspect was a big influence) is a much eerier, darker setting, and Smith is a better writer. That said, this is still entertaining and enjoyably eerie.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Gray Morrow, bottom image is uncredited. Rights to both remain with current holder.




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Voodoo, archeology, a dying world and a suicide slum: books read

MAMA LOLA: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn grew out of author Karen McCarthy Brown’s doctoral thesis but expanded as she became friends with the eponymous Haitian American priestess, participating in vodou rituals and even undertaking spirit marriage to Damballah. Brown manages to bounce between Mama Lola’s (though she refers to her mostly by her regular name of Ahlourdes) life, the Haitian culture and worldview (“There’s no Heaven in Vodou — the spirits constantly complain of how cold and hungry the afterlife is.”), the nature of the spirits and the various religious rituals without losing the book’s unity, which isn’t always the case; not what I expected, but most interesting.

A SHORT HISTORY OF ARCHAEOLOGY by Glyn Daniel was part of a series of archeological books. Daniel traces the beginnings of archeology back to the 1500s-1700s as the idea developed that ancient sites could be studied, not just as looted for pretty items, though some found that concept pretty implausible (Samuel Johnson scoffed that a few ruins couldn’t possibly tell us what the great writers of the past hadn’t said). Unfortunately this is very dry, mostly a list of Great Names and Their Discoveries, though I don’t know if there’s a better way to cover the topic.

I wondered how Leigh Brackett would wrap up her Skaith trilogy when Stark appeared to have won in Hounds of Skaith. In the opening of REAVERS OF SKAITH, we learn the space captain taking Stark and his father-figure Simon home to civilization sold them back to their enemies on Skaith, then began looting the planet. Now Stark has to escape, cross the world again and find a means to communicate with the Galactic Union or he and Simon will be stuck on the dying planet.

While Skaith has been introduced as a dying planet from the first, now the death-throes of the world are in full swing, as a final ice age begins inching across the planet. All the cults and races must either prepare for the end or try to join Stark in emigrating. The exception are the Lords Protector who are confident that after most of the population dies, they can rebuild their society without any major changes. The brooding mood made this less effective than Hounds but even second-string Brackett is pretty cool.

After launching Captain America at Marvel, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon moved to DC for a successful run (their Boy Commandos was only a little short of Superman and Batman in sales). THE NEWSBOY LEGION, Volume One collects one of their creations, the story of four homeless, orphaned newsboys (Scrapper, Tommy, Big Words and Gabby) struggling to survive in the grinding poverty of the Suicide Slum neighborhood. Jim Harper, the new cop in the slum, is finding it just as hard to accomplish anything until he adopts the masked identity of the Guardian. As the kids have an uncanny knack for stumbling onto crimes and Nazi plots, it’s just as well Harper has their back in both his identities, though it sure frustrates the kids that they can never quite prove Harper’s the man under the mask.

The stories have a goofy charm and Kirby’s usual visual energy, as you can see from the cover here. Like a lot of Golden Age stuff, YMMV but I definitely enjoyed them.

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From Riverdale to Skaith to a blacked-out New York: books read

ARCHIE MEETS BATMAN ’66 by Jeff Parker, Michael Moreci and Dan Parent has the United Underworld (Riddler, Joker, Penguin, Catwoman) decide rather than keep losing to Batman, they’ll take over some small, middle-American town and use that as the basis for their crime empire. Suddenly, Archie and his gang notice everyone from Pops at the malt shop to Mr. Lodge acting peculiar, and there are these two new students, Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon, who seem to have a secret … This was fun, and it even manages to work in a Jorge Luis Borges joke in one scene.

ED THE HAPPY CLOWN by Chester Brown is a cheerfully insane story about Ed, who’s actually rather miserable as he deals with vampires, pygmies, sinister government agencies and having Ronald Reagan’s head on the tip of his penis. This takes a while to get going (partly because the first two chapters weren’t conceived as parts of an overall work) but when it does it’s gloriously whacko. Not to everyone’s taste, though, I’m sure.

Like Northwest Smith, CL Moore’s stories of JIREL OF JOIRY follow a consistent formula, starting with the first story, Black God’s Kiss: Jirel enters or is dragged into some unearthly alien hellscape struggles to stay alive and returns. However as there are only five stories (not counting her crossover with Smith), the worlds she enters are so weird and Jirel herself is such a striking character (even though she usually doesn’t get to do much beside provide us with an eyewitness to the weird) that they work much better. However the romantic element of Black God’s Kiss (he slaps her, he dominates her, how can she not love him?) hasn’t aged well.

THE HOUNDS OF SKAITH was Leigh Brackett’s sequel to Ginger Star in which Stark, having rescued his friend Simon from the Lords Protector of Skaith, must journey back to the planet’s spaceport before the ruling Wandsmen shut it down. Even with the psionic Northhounds as his allies, can he do it? This is a good page turner, though I’m curious what Brackett will do for the final volume as the fight seems to be won here.

THE GHOST AND THE FEMME FATALE: A Haunted Bookshop Mystery by Alice Kimberlyis the fourth in a series wherein Penelope, a bookstore owner, teams up with the ghost of a hardboiled PI who haunts her shop. When Penelope attends a film noir festival, it looks like a legendary B-movie Bad Girl has been targeted for murder, but as people around her drop like flies, Pen and her partner wonder if she’s the real target. Even if I were a cozy fan, I don’t know I’d like this (though I might dislike it less): The ghost’s hardboiled dialog gets tiresome and some of the characters snipe at each other like they were in a bad sitcom.

BLACKOUT by James Goodman looks at the 1977 New York power blackout which led to a night variously composed of looting, casual sex, helpfulness (two blind students at Columbia University led their class out of the blacked-out building; lots of people volunteered to direct traffic at intersections), looting, fear (“I can’t identify Son of Sam in the dark!”), jubilation, overwhelmed police, and looting. The morning-after follow-up led to intense debate on both Con Edison’s failure to keep the juice flowing and why this blackout saw looting when 1965 didn’t (Goodman points out that any analysis now should look at the similar lack of looting in the later outage of 2003). Goodman’s slice of life approach (random vignettes rather than following a few individuals) works for me, though not everyone, and his choice to identify most people  by labels — “the social critic,” “the columnist,” “the city councilor” — gets annoying.  Overall a good book though.

#SFWApro. Covers by Chester Brown (top) and Margaret Brundage. All rights to images remain with current holder.


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SF, England and graphic novels: this week’s reading

THE GINGER STAR was Leigh Brackett’s 1970s reboot of her Eric John Stark, showing him as an interstellar rather than an interplanetary adventurer. After Stark’s closest friend disappears on the dying backwater world of Skaith, Stark goes there to hunt for him despite opposition from the cults and gen-engineered races dominating the planet. This makes it something of a Greatest Hits mashup, taking Stark and adding in a dying world like Brackett’s Mars, the genetic engineering of Sword of Rhiannon and the prophecy element of Nemesis From Terra. Lower key than some of the earlier Stark novels, but still good.

Andre Norton’s SPELL OF THE WITCH WORLD was the first book from then-rookie publisher DAW, consisting of three short stories set in the Dales before, during and after the war referenced in Year of the Unicorn. Dragonscale Silver feels like Norton’s reworking earlier witch-world books (psi-linked siblings, a woman of Estcarp blood being raised in the Dales) but it works, and gives us a female warrior mage for the protagonist (she and her lover Jervon show up in a couple more stories, IIRC). Dream Smith has a scarfaced metalworker creating a dream kingdom where he and his deformed lover can live away from the world’s eyes, but it’s way too disability-cliche for me. Amber Out of Quayth is the best story, a Gothic romance like Year of the Unicorn: a woman marries into a sinister family of amber dealers and discovers almost too late they have Dark Secrets. The Dales would remain the setting for the next two or three books.

A SOCIAL HISTORY OF ENGLAND by Asa Briggs suffers the usual problems that any survey of 2,000-plus years is going to have to skim a lot of material. With that limitation, a good overview of the social influences facing Britain such as class, race, money, trade, sex and technology constantly shifting England’s social landscape.Very dry, but informative.

THE FOX: Freak Magnet by Dean Haspiel, Mark Waid and J. M. DeMatteis has had lot of good reviews (from the MLJ Companion, for instance) but I was less than impressed. The protagonist is the son of a Golden Age hero who donned the suit to draw out villains and become a Peter Parker-style photographer of super-action. Unfortunately, even though his career is settled and he’s happily married, the bad guys just keep coming … This premise reminded me of DC’s Blue Devil (ordinary guy plunged into weirdness) but it was nowhere near as entertaining. And the climax, in which the Fox is trapped in WW II and has to ally with the U.S. Shield, Japan’s Hachiman and German’s Master Race, is really weak: the idea that era was driven by a blood lust alien to our own time doesn’t hold up.

FATALE: West of Hell is the third volume in a series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips so I’m not surprised I didn’t understand everything going on. I was surprised how little I cared: the stories of femme fatales in multiple eras obviously all tie together, but I have no interest in reading V 1 and 2 and exploring how it all makes sense.

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Special agents, space travel, Russian warrior women and more: books read.

CHASE by Dan Curtis Johnson and James H. Williams III was a 1998 DC comics series I wish had run longer (though Chase has been bouncing around the DCU ever since). Cameron Chase is an agent for the DEO (yes the inspiration for the one on Supergirl) which covertly watches over the metahuman community. Chase has some issues with the superhero set, but she’s a capable agent who does her job, whether it’s with them or against them; she also has a latent meta-power of her own that allows her to shut down other people’s abilities. The explanation for it was one of the things they never got around to, as well as the mystery about how reformed supervillain Mr. Bones wound up as head of the agency.

This includes the original series plus several short stories from various DC special editions. While I passed it up when it originally came out, I’m happy to have Cameron’s stories in TPB.

John Le Carré’s OUR KIND OF TRAITOR has a vacationing British couple befriended by a burly Russian money launderer who offers to turn over his treasure-trove of Russian Mafia secrets to the authorities if they’ll just get him and his family to England and his son into Eton (one of the prestige private schools) This works best in the opening chapters because of the unusual structure, alternating between the encounter and the couple undergoing grilling by British intelligence. It gets more stock near the end, and particularly in the finish — given Le Carré’s 21st century cynicism, it’s no surprise pervasive British corruption wins out over justice. Overall, though, good, and maybe his only novel where a happy couple live all the way to the end without getting torn apart.

ALPHA CENTAURI OR DIE! is a space opera from Leigh Brackett, without the exotic style of her Martian books (even the hardboiled Nemesis From Terra): with Earth’s oppressive government restricting space flight to robot ships (part of a general policy on controlling everyone’s movements), a pilot leads a group of rebels into space hoping to evade the ships and reach Alpha Centauri. However, after they succeed, it turns out there’s Something Powerful on the planet awaiting them. This is extremely sexist, the colonists’ wives being sniveling and timid without the energy Brackett’s Bad Girls exude; however it’s a good, tense read otherwise and I love the secret of the alien race.

THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich is a spectacular collection of anecdotes by women who fought on the Russian front for various reasons (revenge, patriotism, a desire to be near their husbands) and lived through experiences that while certainly familiar (death, friend’s death, near death, scenes of brutality, rape and harassment) comes off fresh, whether because of the female point of view, the grimness of the Russian front or Alexievich having a good eye for a killer quote. The aftermath of the war was a real mixed bag for the interviewees, including those mired in PTSD, those who say they settled down happily, those who were treated as camp followers by their hometowns; a couple who had their husbands carted off by Stalin for getting captured instead of dying. Very good and a fantastic resource if you wants scenes of violence, starvation in sieges or the sounds of combat (like the constant crack of bones when the fighting gets close enough to hear).

#SFWApro. Cover by J.H. Williams III, bottom cover uncredited. All rights to both remain with current holders.



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Mars, monsters, black hair and copyright: books read

Leigh Brackett’s THE NEMESIS FROM TERRA reads like a mash-up of Brackett’s Martian adventures with her hardboiled movie scripts (she worked on both The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye). It’s set in an era when a powerful Earth corporation has taken over Mars, press ganging lower-class Martians and Earthers to work in the mines (reminding me of Diana Wynn Jones’ joke about how miners in fantasy novels are always slaves, never actual miners). Tough-as-nails protagonist Rick is on the run from the press gang when a Martian seer tells him he’s destined to rule. To succeed, though, he’s got to defeat the corporation, it’s ruthless leader and deal with their mutual interest in an attractive revolutionary (the Bacall to Rick’s Bogart). Plus, of course, a lost city.

This is a grimmer, tougher yarn than most of Brackett’s Mars stories (people smoke a lot more than they do in her other stories too), but it also fits what Edmond Hamilton (Brackett’s husband) saw as the theme of her work: a man who pursues a great dream only to find it hollow. A good story, in any case.

HAIR STORY: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps does an excellent job tracing the history of African-American hair and hairstyles from Africa (where elaborate hairstyles were as much a status marker as a bespoke suit today) through slavery to post-Civil War segregation. In both freedom and slavery, straight “white” style hair became the marker of a superior person (and also more acceptable to the white world); later in the 20th century, the popularity of the Afro (and later dredlocks) led to debate whether this represented True Blackness, meaningless fashion or was just tacky. There’s a lot more stuff covered in the book; while I know some of these issues exist, the authors did a great job making me understand them.

TwoMorrows Publishing’s MONSTER MASH: The Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze in America, 1957-1972 by Mark Voger looks back to the late 1950s when Universal released its Shock Theater package to TV, containing its classic monster films (and a lot that weren’t so classic), introducing Frankenstein, Dracula and others to a generation of kids who’d never seen them (the last film in the cycle was 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). Kids were blown away (so was I when I encountered the films in syndication a dozen years later), leading to an explosion of marketing (sweat shirts, Aurora models, Count Chocula cereal, board games) and TV spinoffs such as The Munsters (surprisingly Voger never mentions the film version, Munsters Go Home), The Addams Family and Dark Shadows. Voger argues that while the classic horrors and their spinoffs are still around this era of film horror ended in 1972 as The Exorcist took the genre in another direction. A good job.

HOLLYWOOD’S COPYRIGHT WARS: From Edison to the Internet by Peter Decherney, shows how copyright struggles were part of the movie industry from the early days, when it wasn’t clear if copyright applied to photography (if you just photographed real life, what creativity was there to protect?), let alone to films, which were seen as collections of photographs. Following that debate would come battles over pirating other studios’ films (a common problem in the early years), adapting books and plays for the screen, whether TV editing movies violated creator rights (the Monty Python were one of the few who won that fight, when they sued ABC for butchering their skits for a late-night showing), then into the age of the VCR, DVD and Internet (while I’m more familiar with the issues of this period, Decherney still told me a lot I didn’t know). An excellent job.

#SFWApro. Brackett cover art is uncredited; all rights to images remain with current holders.


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Helen of Troy again, bog people and Martians: books read

THE MIRROR OF HELEN by Richard Purtill was the third in a Grecian fantasy trilogy he wrote back in the 1970s, amounting to three novelettes: her abduction in youth by Theseus, her life in Troy as the war moves to its end and the obscure legend that the Helen in Troy was just a doppelganger created by Egyptian mysticism, and the real Helen was safe in the land of the Nile for all ten years.

Purtill writes the period well and he manages to work within the sexism of the age without making it insufferable the way The Sword is Forged did. I really like his take on a lot of the characters, from cunning, tricky Odysseus to Helen, who fears her own beauty is a curse (as every man who sees her loves her, what mane will ever love her for who she is inside?). However after reading Helen of Troy last week I found myself more conscious than on first reading how very passive Purtill’s Helen is. She never wanted to go with Paris, but was forced into it by Aphrodite (the earlier book points out that by Greek standards, being influenced by the Olympians didn’t let her off the hook); more than that, she seems completely resigned to everything, not pining for Menelaus, nor resisting her captivity nor grieving for Paris’ death. The book was worth rereading but I rate it less highly than I did at first.

THE BOG PEOPLE: Iron Age Man Preserved by PV Glob (a Scandinavian archeologist who wrote the book to answer the letters he was always receiving) looks at the Tollund Man (below) and other cases of corpses found perfectly preserved in peat bogs, even after centures: you can see the noose around his neck, and it’s possible to study hairstyles and even fingerprint some of the corpses. Glob looks at some of the best-known cases, how they were discovered and what they looked like (it’s well photographed) and speculates as to them being ritual sacrifices (I’ve no idea if that theory has held up — this book was written in the 1960s). Dry, but the topic snd the images are just so cool.

There’s a long tradition of SF authors expanding early short stories or novellas into full novels, which is what Leigh Brackett did with THE SECRET OF SINHARAT (a revised and reworked version of Queen of the Martian Catacombs) and THE PEOPLE OF THE TALISMAN, a reworking of  Black Amazon of Mars. In Sinharat, Brackett’s feral-child turned mercenary Eric John Stark is about to sign on with a warlord plotting to lead a barbarian army against Mars’ city states. A old friend convinces him to become a mole for Earth intelligence and stop the war before it starts. Unfortunately an old rival, a beautiful girl and a secret body-jumping immortal make his mission far more dangerous than expected. It’s a good yarn, but not great.

Talisman, however, is absolutely awesome. It starts off like Black Amazon: a dying thief asks Start to take a stolen holy relic back to the city of Kushat. Along the way, Stark falls afoul of the warlord Ciaran, who’s targeting that city to begin his (actually her, as we find out later) reign of conquest. Taking refugees and the talisman beyond the pass called the Gates of Death, Stark goes looking for allies. Instead he finds a creepy ruined city occupied by immortals who seem to have taken the Joker as a role model: they’re giggling insane and spend their time murdering each other (the victims find it as fun as the killers). And now look, all these humans have come here to play … It’s vastly creepier than the lost city in the original story, and I think this is one of Brackett’s best.

#SFWApro. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Helen of Troy is public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Tollund Man photo is from National Museet and used under a creative commons license.

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